How Did the Country of Laos Get its Name?

Temple in Laos
Temple in Laos | © Felix Nagel / Flickr

The country of Laos, officially named the Lao People’s Democratic Republic or Lao PDR, has a long history in which it has been known by many names.

Today in the west, the country is commonly called Laos. While westerners commonly pronounce the “s” at the end of the name, Lao nationals and others in the region do not.

Laotian people

The name Laos is derived from the Laotian people, an ethnicity that make up more than half the population of Laos. These people migrated to southeast Asia from China between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. They are called Ai Lao in Chinese and Isan people in Thailand. Both the Lao and Isan people speak mutually intelligible languages (Lao language and Thai Isan) and culturally the two are practically indistinguishable.

Lao Loum children

Lan Xang

Today, the term Lao people is used to classify all those living in Laos regardless of ethnic background. The country’s cultural identity can be traced back to the Lan Xang Kingdom which ruled from 1354 to 1707. Lan Xang means ‘million elephants’ and was one of the largest kingdoms in southeast Asia. It was first ruled by Fa Ngum, who expanded the territory from the Chinese border down into what is now Cambodia.

Statue of Fa Ngum, founder of the Lan Xang kingdom

Siam invasion

By the 18th century, the Lan Xang Empire had broken into three smaller rival states in Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak. These three states were conquered by the Siamese, looted of much of their cultural artifacts such as Buddha statues and artworks. The people were forced into work projects and moved into less populated regions of what is now central Thailand.

A typical example of French colonial architecture (now a health centre) in Luang Prabang

French invasion

The French, who had already colonized Vietnam and Cambodia, were interested in controlling the Mekong and all its tributaries that flowed into the South China Sea. The Franco-Siamese War of 1893 forced Siam to give up much of what is now Laos to the French who took control of the land east of the Mekong River as part of French Indochina. The French allied with the King in Luang Prabang who ruled over the Kingdom of Laos. In 1950, Laos declared its independence but much of the government was still run by the French.

A Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF) North American T-28D-5 Trojan armed trainer in Laos, September 1972

Civil War

The Lao Civil War, also called the Secret War was fought 1959–75 between the communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government. The United States CIA used Thai officers to train hill tribe soldiers, many of them Hmong, to fight the communists and dropped over two million tons of bombs on the country. The communist Pathet Lao ultimately won the war and renamed the country The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which remains to this day.

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